How many times do you walk into an elevator and purposely avoid eye contact with the people inside? Do you consciously look the other way when sprinting past a fellow jogger on your lonely early morning trail? How about your next-door neighbor when you’re taking out the trash? Or the taxi driver when you’re hurriedly sliding into the cab and stating your destination? How many times a day do you make an conscious effort to ignore the unnamed people around you?
This habit of pretending others don’t exist and carrying on immersed in our own busy-ness has become so deeply ingrained in the very makeup of our current urban existence that we don’t even think twice about it. We don’t acknowledge another human being’s presence even within two feet of us, much less think about giving them a smile, a hello, asking them how their day is going. A lot of this has to do with the way we’re living our rat race, completely consumed with thoughts of ourselves, our worries, our problems. We are the center of our universe. There is simply no time to say hi when we’re running from one task to another, our minds occupied with our overflowing to-do list, our endless appointments and infinite obligations, our ongoing responsibilities. The twenty-four hours we have in a day barely suffices to do everything that must be done, and yet, in the middle of this incredibly important (and stressful) checklist, I have the audacity to insinuate that we must take time to stop, look a stranger in the eye, and say hello to them? Well, it’s really not as outrageous as one might believe.
I have lived almost all of my life in big cities. I spent my growing years in Jakarta, my college days in Boston, and my working life in New York City and Singapore. It was from one urban jungle to another. Don’t get me wrong – I loved all the vibrant flavors of these cities, and they will always hold a dear place in my heart. They taught me so many different lessons, but interestingly, none of them taught me the skill of welcoming another into my space. Instead, they conditioned me to tighten up, wrap myself in a protective layer, and look at the world with wary eyes. Of course this was not without reason – the urban landscape is filled with hazards, both human and non-human, that it becomes instinctive for the urbanites to defend themselves. When someone who has acclimatized their public behaviors to such conditions is suddenly met with the complete opposite of what they have been used to, it is shocking to the internal system.
But it is shocking in the most wonderful of ways. And I know, by first-hand experience.
The state of Nebraska (USA) opened my eyes to one of life’s basic necessities – taking a moment to stop and say hello.
I moved there as a married woman, to the Midwestern state of “The Good Life”, wondering how different life was going to be for a city-bred individual as myself. I didn’t think I would learn anything significant in the “middle of nowhere” after having lived such dynamic lifestyles, but… I was wrong.
The good-natured Nebraskans taught me a very simple, but oh-so-important, lesson: it is okay to smile, say hi, and ask a stranger how their day is going. It is okay to look into their eyes and welcome them into your world, even if just for that moment. It is okay to greet one another, whenever, wherever, however. It is okay to inquire about each other, to ask not just for the sake of asking, but to ask because you actually want to care.
This was something radically new to me. Initially, it seemed superfluous. A waste of time. Do these people not have something better to do with their time? Are they bored? Are these just “social niceties”? Do I actually have to respond?!
Well, I started responding. I answered their questions, I asked them the same. They replied, I replied, and we started talking. The conversations wouldn’t last long – probably as long as it took the Walmart cashier to ring up my purchases, or as long as it took the public librarian to check out my books, or as long as it took the playschool coordinator to let my little toddler out – but those few minutes were so… pleasant. And the simple agreeableness of the exchange made me smile, made them smile, and then we went about our own ways. We slipped back into our busy world, filled with tasks and responsibilities, but a world that suddenly seemed nicer, friendlier, and happier.
That was it. A few minutes of me sharing my world with another person in a respectable and friendly manner gave a coat of instant contentment to my day.
The little things make the biggest impact, don’t they? It is surprising the warmth that a simple hello to a fellow stranger will illicit within ourselves when we look up, meet their eyes, give them a smile, and invite them for a quick interaction. We can stop at a hello and continue on our way, or we can linger a little bit and ask them how they’re doing. We can exchange a few more words, a question on how their day is going, an innocent comment about the weather, or a joke about the latest scandal splashed all over the newspapers. The length of time we spend talking to a complete stranger is up to our discretion, but that initial greeting will do wonders for our spirit. Sure, you’re bound to bump into a grumpy few who will ignore your efforts (some might even frown at having their “space” invaded), but trust me, they are few and far between. If we can drop our inhibitions, we will be pleasantly surprised at the humane connections we can make, just with a simple hi.
After all, humans are social animals; we exist within the paradigm of a society/community so we can securely behave within the social constructs we have built around and within us. We will never tire of human interaction because the heart has no limits to how many souls it can welcome inside. The cynical indifference that there is no point in smiling and acknowledging a stranger, thinking they will probably turn the other way and just reject our gesture, is an irrational fear. It has evolved into an uncomfortable truth in today’s world only because we have made it true with our appallingly uninterested behavior to each other as human beings. Such a form of forced non-interaction is innately false. Underneath the pretentious (and largely defensive) exterior, we are all craving for a connection, a smile, even a small nod of the head, just about anything to remind each other that we’re all living, breathing beings occupying the same shared space on this earth.
Well, give it a try. Step outside of your box, shake off the shackles, and look a stranger in the eye. Drop the invisible barriers you have cushioned around yourselves, break down the defensive walls, and peek through the opening. Muster up the courage and respectful effort to say hi to him/her/them.
You will be surprised that your little world will suddenly seem a bit brighter, a bit rounder, and a whole lot bigger… all because you let someone in, even if just for a moment.